On Thursday, I attended the Environmental Justice and Sustainability Unconference put on by the Office of Student Life at the University of Toronto. At this “unconference”, individuals could set up shop in various parts of the venue and lead a conversation about different topics. I participated in two discussions: Which are the most energy intensive buildings on campus and why? and on Conservation and consumerism. I thought I would share some highlights from these conversations.
Both discussions were interesting, though the second was perhaps somewhat more pertinent to my research. The first discussion on energy intensive buildings was led by Mike Dymarski from the chemistry department. The Sustainability Office has data on energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions available in a publicly accessible web application, so I already knew that Robarts Library was one of the worst total consumers of energy, but that labs had higher energy consumption per unit area. I was surprised to learn that the entirety of the Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories building’s air supply cycled quickly; I thought most of the labs were isolated and on a separate ventilation system. I suppose I didn’t pay much attention to that kind of thing while I was working there before I was debeakered.
One of the reasons for the energy intensity of these buildings, which, due to systemic change, may become less of an issue, is not that the people actually running the day-to-day operations are thinking in the short term, even when only looking at the (single) bottom line. It’s that they don’t see any of the cost savings and, without these savings, do not have the resources to implement big change. The short-term-thinking ones are from elsewhere in the university. The sustainability fund only supports projects that will realize a cost-savings in a window of five years. This is coming from a one hundred eighty-year old university that shows no signs of disappearing any time soon. Maybe if people were responsible for their own electricity and heating bills, we wouldn’t have situations like organizations running low-use pop machines or people living in places with utilities included leaving electronic devices on all the time.
In the second conversation that didn’t start until half-way through the discussion period, we talked about things such as functional and designed obsolescence whereby many things are designed to break so that one must purchase a replacement on a regular basis or to become unfashionable. We also discussed the government’s role, as backed by various industrial lobby groups, in allowing companies to continue to market such products.
There was disagreement in our group as to the proximal cause of governments with short-term agendas getting voted in. One view was that it was voter apathy that kept the same parties in power; another was that it was voter disenfranchisement. I supported the hypothesis that people lack the education/foresight to realize that short term gains at the expense of the long term can be dangerous. Thus, we continue to buy shoddy products because they are cheaper now, though they cost more over the long term, and elect governing parties (partly funded by companies catering to our immediate wants) that promise, but may not deliver, short term gains. I still remember the disillusionment of some of the populace conveyed in newspaper articles last year when President Obama told his country that full economic recovery could take a few years rather than happen by year-end. Not even an iPhone can make that kind of turnaround happen.